Vancouver Courier
July 2, 1997

You know the United Nations is on its last legs when the secretary-general has to go to cap-in-hand looking for money. In effect, that’s what Boutros Boutros-Ghali was doing on his recent visit to Canada. The UN’s peacekeeping mission to Haiti has run out of money and he wants Canada to extend its security commitment to that country’s fragile democracy for another six months beyond the June 30 expiry date.

Problem is, the UN is virtually broke, mainly because the U.S. and Russia are delinquent in their support payments. (The world body is entirely dependent upon contributions from member states, and may not issue securities to raise funds.) If Canada agrees to Boutros-Ghali’s plea, it will have to pay its own way. As it is, Canada is already out of pocket some $20 million over Haiti.

Usually, when the UN calls for peacekeeping duty, Canada jumps at the chance. After all, Canada has played some part in every UN mission since 1956. This time, though, Canada has uncharacteristically opted for calculation instead of Pavlovian enthusiasm. Before it agrees to an extension, Ottawa has insisted that the UN pick up a greater share of the costs. In the meantime, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy is trying to work out a funding arrangement among the six-nation Friends of Haiti (of which Canada is a member).

If Canada, Argentina and the other members scrape enough together to pay for the extension, it will be a significant victory for Haiti and its friends, but a bitter blow to the UN.

For 50 years, the belief that a world body could maintain a peaceful world orders sustained the UN and its supporters. The UN was supposed to herald a new era of international co-operation. No more alliances; no more world wars.

That belief is no longer tenable; in fact, it never was. In every peacekeeping mission—from Suez in 1956 to Bosnia in the 1990s—the UN has an unbroken record of failure. At no time has a peacekeeping mission lived up to its promise to compel combatants to end hostilities. The UN is a bloated, inefficient behemoth that has neither the financial nor the political clout to fulfill its promises. It is a monument to a misbegotten optimism, however idealistic and well-intentioned it may have been.

The UN has kept the illusion alive this long because the Cold War paralyzed the Security Council—except of course for the Korean War vote in 1950—thus preventing it from having to make good on its security pledge. That job would fall to NATO.

Lester Pearson, the father of UN peacekeeping, saw no contradiction in using a military coalition of nations to enforce peace. He would have praised the coalition force that was arrayed against Saddam Hussein, as well as the coalition designed to help Haiti.

In the late 1940s, Pearson knew that the UN was incapable of fulfilling any central security role and that the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (formed in 1947) would have to serve as its the military arm until the UN could function as a guarantor of security. But the UN could never be a guarantor of security. Peacekeeping has succeeded (to the degree that it can be said to have succeeded at all) only because the bi-polar world order and great  powers’ self-interest allowed it to exist.

In Rise and Fall of a Middle Power—Canadian Diplomacy from King to Mulroney, former External Affairs officer Arthur Andrews writes: “By the time John Diefenbaker had handed government over to L. B. Pearson, the Cold War had become, as one thought, a permanent fixture and the dominant factor in international life.” Now that the bi-polar world has disappeared, so has much of the utility of UN peacekeeping.

As long ago as February 1993, the New York Times reported that Bosnian Serb leaders could “exhaust” UN forces by delaying, diverting or halting aid convoys at will. Because the UN refused to allow its troops to respond to these aggressions with force, the Serbs learned they could aid or hinder the UN mission according to their tactical requirements. The UN instead issued a blizzard of impotent protests as people died. The three years of the UN’s mission to deliver humanitarian aid to Bosnia’s civilians was an unmitigated disaster marked by cowardice and incompetence.

The UN is more a monument to denial than optimism. The idea that dozens of national self-interests could suddenly and rationally be focused into one world body was never credible. National self-interests always determine the success or failure of a policy. In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. took the lead in forming an alliance to push back an aggressor. The UN was little more than a spectator.

In Haiti, Canada is the major player in helping restore democratic society because the UN is too poor to do anything. If Canada can rally other nations to Haiti’s cause, and share the costs, why is the UN even necessary?

Unfortunately, the myth of Canada as the great crusading “peacekeeper” and “helpful fixer” is entrenched in our national culture. Because of this, Canada is in large part tied to the fortunes of the UN, so the diminishing utility of the world body should be a particular concern. For too long, Canada has used UN peacekeeping as an excuse not to have a military policy of its own. As the UN falls into disrepair, the challenge for Canada now, finally, must struggle to articulate a coherent, independent military policy.